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Chicago Lexicographers

The making of dictionaries is an art of immense detail, a never-ending quest for precision, accuracy, and truth. The U of C contribution to the field is marked by professors and alumni who have in the past created the standard texts in use today, and are today creating the texts that will be the standards of tomorrow.

Chicago professor James R. Hulbert, who assisted Sir William Craigie on the Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles a half-century ago, said somewhat idyllically about the field, "I know of no more enjoyable intellectual activity than working on a dictionary.... It does not make one's life anxious, nor build up hopes only to have them collapse. Every day one is confronted by new problems, usually small but absorbingly interesting; at the end of the day one feels healthily tired, but content in the thought that one has accomplished something and advanced the whole work towards its completion."

Below are some Chicago faculty and alumni who have advanced "the whole work."

Sir William Craigie
Generally considered the foremost lexicographer of his time, Craigie came to the University of Chicago after working for 31 years on the first edition of the OED, a task for which he was knighted and received an honorary doctorate of letters from Cambridge University. From 1925 to 1944, during his tenure as a professor of English literature at Chicago, Craigie authored the Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles, a 2,553-page lexicon of words used in America from 1607 to 1925.

An expert on Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian languages, Craigie also edited the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue and was influential in establishing the Frisian Academy, the Anglo-Norman Text Society, the Anglo-Norman Dictionary, the Icelandic Rimur Society, and the Scottish National Dictionary.

Mitford M. Mathews, X'27
A student in Chicago's first lexicography class, taught by Craigie, Mathews worked as an assistant editor on Craigie's Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles for 19 years, during which time he also studied at Oxford and Harvard Universities.

Upon the completion of the DAE in 1944, Mathews was appointed head of the dictionary department of the University of Chicago Press, supervising, among other works, publication of the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue. In addition to bringing the DAE up-to-date in 1951 with his Dictionary of Americanisms, he also authored The Beginnings of American English, A Survey of English Dictionaries, and Some Sources of Southernisms.

Orin Hargraves, AB'77
Hargraves has made a career of freelancing his lexicography skills to a variety of publishers including Bloomsbury, Longman, Collins, Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, and Random House. He is currently working on a learner's dictionary (Bloomsbury), a German-English dictionary (Langenscheidt), and a dictionary of military terms (Oxford).

"Lexicography is ideally suited for the self-employed home worker because now most work is done on computer, distributed by e-mail, or picked up online," notes Hargraves. "I have three dictionaries on my laptop hard drive, and I often work while traveling. I stumbled into the field by answering an ad from Longman for an American speaker when I lived in the U.K. Once I got into it, I realized that it was the gig I'd been looking for all my life."

Erin McKean, AB'93, AM'93
Beginning her career as a volunteer for the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary Project before becoming editorial manager for the Thorndike Barnhart children's dictionaries, McKean now serves as senior editor for U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press and editor of VERBATIM: The Language Quarterly.

"I've wanted to work on dictionaries since I was eight years old," says McKean. "I don't know what it is about dictionaries-probably the idea of being responsible for creating something that most people take for granted. The work itself is fascinating, a combination of detective work, technical writing, and crossword puzzling."

Steve Kleinedler, X'00
While he was a graduate student in linguistics at the U of C, Kleinedler freelanced as a lexicographer for the National Textbook Company. Currently, he serves as an editor for the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition (Houghton Mifflin, Trade & Reference Division).

"As a child, I spent a lot of time sifting through my parents' dictionaries, atlases, and almanacs," remembers Kleinedler. "I read them cover to cover, devised charts and tables based on statistical information I uncovered, and even invented languages." - C.S.

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